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Our Racial Divide

Emory University professor Carol Anderson protesting.

In White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson, Professor and Chair of the African American Studies Department at Emory University, here gives us an exquisitely pointed polemic. While she leaves no room for subtlety or nuance, she is on to something as important for white readers as it is probably obviously for blacks. That is that every time blacks have managed to advance in American society, whites have moved systematically to drive them back.

Her chapters tell five stories:

  • the rolling back of Reconstruction after the Civil War,
  • systematic Southern efforts to obstruct the black migration to Northern cities after World War I,
  • undermining the impact of Brown v. Board of Education,
  • the long effort starting with Nixon to undercut the gains from the civil rights movement and the legislation of the 1960s, and
  • the denial of legitimacy to President Barack Obama.
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The deeper truth that she calls to our attention is this: that many or most whites, North as well as South, are not comfortable with black advancement and will support measures that will contain that advancement.

The stories are told as if there was centralized leadership and planning in the white community. There is little acknowledgement of white dissent or white support for blacks. She does demonstrate that there was indeed a good deal of coordination, if not always centralized leadership, at each stage. But the deeper truth that she calls to our attention is this: that many or most whites, North as well as South, are not comfortable with black advancement and will support measures that will contain that advancement.

As a white Southerner by upbringing and a renegade liberal by conviction, I have recognized for some time that this is true. It is most obvious in the resurrection of the old racist Solid South under Republican auspices after Goldwater carried the Deep South in 1964, after Nixon and Wallace campaigned on the white backlash to Civil Rights in 1968. But though this book was written and published before the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the success of his xenophobic campaign with a strong majority of white voters nationwide is good evidence for a white backlash in the North.

What should be our response to this “white rage”? Paradoxically (I think Anderson would disagree with me about this) the best way forward now for African Americans and other minorities, the best way to combat this cultural racism, may be to deemphasize red flags like affirmative action and emphasize straight equal opportunity for access to programs aimed to benefit all. This was the genius of the New Deal (however flawed it was in application).

The book ends with a short epilogue entitled “Imagine,” in which Anderson urges us to look optimistically to a future when this culture of racism no longer dominates American society. But how can this be when from our earliest colonial origins our society was founded on white racism (toward Native Americans as well as African Americans). As a culture, we will never be rid of it. We can only keep struggling against it.

john peeler

John Peeler